A HOCKEY STICK STORY

12 11 2017

Maybe I’m sentimental, but I still subscribe to Mother Jones Magazine. I first connected with it back in the 70’s, when, like the labor organizer it’s named for, it was a radical voice that both took a clear-eyed look at what is, and laid out a promising, hopeful view of, and path toward, the better future that could be. In the forty years since, the magazine has increasingly become a cheerleader for the mainstream of the Democratic Party, to the point that I think that  if Mother Jones were she still alive, she would be taking legal action against the magazine for sullying her good name. So far, though, every time I’ve felt just about fed up enough to cancel my subscription, they’ve come through with some kind of a must-read-and-share article that has renewed my faith in them.

I’m curious to see what they’ll make of Donna Brazile’s recent tell-all memoir, in which she reveals that the DP really did rig the primaries in exchange for certain financial considerations from the Clinton campaign. Perhaps the lawsuit on those grounds against the DP will be revived. But that’s not what I”m going to focus on tonight. I want to focus, instead, on what I think is the first science fiction story Mother Jones has ever printed. That story is called “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot.”   It features a hockey stick graph of the rate at which computing power, and thus, automation, is expected to increase.aihockeystick,

The science fiction aspect of this story is not so much the potential advances in computer technology as it is its casual, offhand treatment of climate change, regarding it as a minor inconvenience that will, of course, be managed and dealt with without any serious impact on our Sacred American Way of Life. That’s kind of like confusing spinal meningitis with the flu. Climate change, like spinal meningitis, has its own exponential growth curve. hockeyprojection

The Mother Jones article predicts that, by 2060, computers will be “driving vehicles, writing books, performing surgery, doing math research,” and, ultimately, “performing all human tasks.” That touches on a very deep question–“What Are Humans For?” which author Kevin Drum doesn’t deal with. Instead, he promises pie in the sky, with a hint of darkness:

A hundred years from now, all of this will be moot. Society will adapt in ways we can’t foresee, and we’ll all be far wealthier, safer, and more comfortable than we are today—assuming, of course, that the robots don’t kill us all, Skynet fashion.

Yes, a compassionless computer network could well  come to the conclusion that humans are the source of the world’s problems, and that our elimination would be an acceptable solution, but that possibility, I think, also belongs in the category of “science fiction.” When we consider the exponential curve of climate change, and, in addition, the exponential curve of population increase, the future starts to look very different from Drum’s rosy prognostications about universal basic income and an end to “human drudgery,” by which he seems to mean any kind of concentrated attention and/or physical effort to actually do something that needs to be done.howe-world-oil-and-population-two-lifetimes

At our current rate of growth, there will be somewhere over eleven billion people on the planet by the time computers are able to do everything humans can do, only better. There will also be greatly diminished supplies of the resources that people, and computers, need to, respectively, live, or be manufactured and have access to the electrical power they need to operate. But that’s not all. The climate change hockey stick is going to whack us upside the head several different ways, and may knock the hockey stick of increasing computer intelligence completely out of our hands in the process.

The results of climate change by the middle of this century are likely to be devastating. Accelerating sea level rise will have begun to limit the usefulness of seaports and coastal airports, inundated low-lying agricultural areas like the Mekong Delta, and created millions of climate refugees as people flee increasingly flooded coastal regions. In addition, sea level rise will endanger sea-level electric power generating stations, which will weaken or fracture the electric grid. Bye-bye, internet. Bye-bye, cell phones for everybody. Bye-bye, Sacred American Way Of Life. Many of those sea-level electric sources are nuclear, so the world of the mid-twenty-first century may include a dozen or more Fukushimas and Chernobyls,

Severe weather events are also likely to be more commonplace. The first storms with 200-mile=per-hour winds have just been observed, and there is no reason to think they will not become more commonplace. What Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico and Typhoon Haiyan did to the Philippines could happen to Miami, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or Washington, D.C., and could happen repeatedly. Our global civilization, already punch drunk, will start staggering around, increasingly helpless, as the pummeling by the natural world that we have brought on ourselves increases, until we finally collapse and are counted out.

This is not going to be a friendly environment for a high-tech, largely digital culture, nor for people who are dependent on such a culture. It will be a good time for people who have skills that don’t depend on oil, electricity, or a world-wide goods distribution system.

Let me give you an example or two. “Local food” is all the rage. But how about “local farm implements”? That would require local iron workers, i.e., blacksmiths. How many blacksmiths do you know? And how about local power for those locally produced farm implements? There’s a biofuel-powered, self-replicating form of that. It’s called a horse. To use a horse to farm, you not only need to know how to work with horses, you need to have a source for “tack”–bridles, reins, horseshoes, and all that. Bridles, et al, require leather, which requires people who know how to skin animals, tan their hides, and turn those tanned hides into useful products. Expensive pants for hipsters are a nice start, but there are far more practical uses for leather. You know, shoes? How many cobblers do you know? And then there’s locally produced boxes, baskets, and sacks to hold our locally harvested vegetables, fruits, and field crops, as well as locally constructed horse wagons to carry them around. At least we’ve got enough old rubber tires to last us until a new generation of wheelwrights gets their act together.  And, come to think of it, how are you going to light and fuel the fire with which you cook your local food? Solar ovens have their limitations.

horsenbuggy

The locally built, grown,sourced, and fueled transportation of the future…

 

 

I could go on expanding the “needs pyramid” of local food all night, but let’s look at another essential: clothing. While there is enough surplus clothing in this country to cover everybody’s ass for a decade or more, sooner or later we’re going to have to, um, pick up the thread of local clothing production. The first thing that involves is having fiber sources. The traditional ones have been wool, cotton, flax, and hemp. Who knows how to take the raw materials produced by sheep and agricultural crops and spin them into thread? Who knows how to weave thread into cloth? How many of us can create clothing “out of whole cloth”?

That’s just some of the material skills I think we will need in the 21st century we are likely to get. All of them require learning skills, which produces satisfaction along with the material produced–unless, of course, we remain harnessed to the exploitive regime of capitalism–but that’s a story for another time. I think the fantasy that robots were going to do everything, and the ways in which they began to take over, will be recorded in the books, and recounted around the hearths, of 22nd century humans.Books–papermaking, anyone? Local ink? Printing press construction and typesetting?

In addition to all the myriad material skills that were so common in, say, the 17th century, we will also need to learn the psychological skills involved in getting along with each other: not taking our own egos too seriously, being able to communicate with, listen to, and be considerate of, others, and having enough integrity to keep our word if it’s at all possible and communicate with those to whom we gave it if it’s not. That’s a start, and it’s some of what, along with all the knowledge that we have uncovered in our two-century oil and tech binge, will make our future, however materially scaled down it may be, much less brutal and ignorant than our past–or our present.

Oh, and the other thing–what are humans for? That’s an important part of the wisdom that will guide us into a saner, if scaled-down, future. While I could go on at some length about what I think we are for, and may do so in some future post/broadcast, the first thing I think about it is that ultimately the answer is something that everybody needs to discover for themselves. Hearing somebody else talk about it is like hearing somebody else talk about sex. It can be helpful, but it just ain’t the same as being there and participating.

Here’s to a satisfying, non-virtual future, in which we are all very present, active participants..

music: Talking Heads, “Nothing But Flowers

 

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